The Balls Rung Tunes

The Balls Rung Tunes

The mud soaked roads and swamps leading the Union forces of Burnside’s Expedition toward the Confederate forces defending Newbern made marching miserable for Oliver Case and the other troops in the 8th Connecticut. Bedding down for the night on March 13, 1862 brought little relief to these boys in blue as the North Carolina coastal weather continued to dump rain. Oliver observed that the milder southern climate granted some relief when the order to move out came at 6 am on the morning of March 14th, although “our blankets were as heavy as 8 ought to be.”

The regiments and brigades of Burnside’s expedition were up and moving again on the morning of 14 February 1862. At 7:00 am the units were advancing toward Confederate breastworks that, unlike those of the first day, were occupied by soldiers in gray and butternut. The First Brigade quickly became engaged by Confederate forces in entrenchments along the Fort Thompson line closer to the river. Colonel Rodman, of the Fourth Rhode Island, discovered an opening in the entrenchments by which the Confederates could be flanked and reported this fact immediately to his brigade commander, General Parke. Parke did not hesitate to order an attack by the entire brigade who were positioned in the center of the Union line of advance. The entrenchments were soon overwhelmed by Parke’s troops and the Confederate defenders were flanked because the center of the Confederate line was manned by green militia units. Seeing the advancing Union regiments of Parke’s Brigade, these militia troops quick broke and ran to the rear.[1]

As the 8th Connecticut approached the still-occupied earthworks, it was the moment of truth for Private Case. “[T]he balls rung tunes over our heads and occasionally played a little nearer our heads than we cared for” as the remaining Confederate defenders fired upon the advancing Union troops. For Oliver, his baptism of fire had finally arrived.

To those who have not experienced it, the emergence of humor while under enemy fire may seem an impossibility. This phenomenon, as difficult as it may be to understand, is real. In the midst of battle there is still room for humor. So it was for Oliver Case and the soldiers of Company A, 8th CVI:

Philo Matson, from out on Firetown mountains, was in the rank ahead of me and was much frightened; he would have fell out if possible. The orders were given to fall down, right up, fix bayonets, fire. As soon as I had fired, I heard Philo say, “Oh, I’m killed”, turned and saw a slight flesh wound on the top of his head. I certainly could not help laughing to see him. He turned to the orderly and asked him if he thought he was killed and, when he found out that he was still in the land of the living, took his gun and made himself missing as soon as possible.[2]

Here stands Oliver Case, with of bullets flying over his head, any one of which could strike him and cause instant death, yet he’s laughing. Obviously, Private Philo A. Matson of Canton, Connecticut was giving verbal or non-verbal indications that he wanted to run away as the regiment marched into the hail of bullets. Certainly, his fellow soldiers were afraid of what was ahead but none would dare let it show and be labeled a coward. Matson had no such inhabitations and made a spectacle of himself after suffering a minor flesh wound. His cowardness manifested itself as Maston “made himself missing” on a permanent basis being listed as a deserter in April 1862.

The humor of the Connecticut troops was short-lived as some of the Confederate rounds found their mark. Two companies of the 8th (G and H, actually K) were sent out as skirmishers as company A and the remainder of the regiment lay on the ground with the bullets buzzing just above them. Oliver reported to Abbie on the first causalities of the battle:

Capt. Epham [This name was unclear to the original transcriber] of Co. H was wounded in the shoulder at this time; it is feared mortally. Howes Phelps from Co. B was killed.[3]

In fact, there is no record of a Capt. “Epham” in the 8th CVI. The company commander of company H at this time appears to have been Capt. Thomas D. Sheffield of Stonington who had replaced Capt. Douglass Fowler. Sheffield originally enlisted in company G as the 1st Lieutenant and it is assumed he was promoted and transferred to company H upon the resignation of Fowler. He was honorably discharged on January 17, 1863. Rolls of the 8th confirm that Houlsey F.D. Phelps (aka “Howes”) of East Windsor (likely a distant cousin of Oliver), was killed at the Battle of Newbern on March 14, 1862. Capt. “Epham” was likely Capt. Charles L. Upham, commander of company K, who was reported as being wounded in the battle by the account of Croffut and Morris, but this status is not found on the company rolls.

Storming of Fort Thompson Battle of New Bern

The Union assault on Fort Thompson at the Battle of Newbern

 

These causalities occurred during the assault of the Confederate battery known as Fort Thompson described by Oliver:

At this time, word came that the 21st Mass. had charged upon the battery and were repulsed. We were ordered on double quick through [word unreadable] until we reached the rail road where was a high embankment where we halted to form.[4]

Moving quietly down the railroad, Colonel Harland had positioned his regiment to assault the battery from the flank. Oliver observed some deception in the works:

We were then ordered to fall and by mistake our colors fell too, and the rebels, deceived by our gray coats, took us to be rebel reinforcements arriving by rail road and ceased firing upon us; this mistake probably saved many lives.[5]

The soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets and the charge was then directed by Colonel Harland:

“…with a clear, shrill voice, and the emphasis of coming victory, rang the orders, “By company into line!” An advancing front of forty men appeared before the astonished rebels. ” Fix bayonets ! ” It was done at a rapid walk. ” Forward into line ! ” Up the embankment, and across the railroad, dashed the rear companies, coming into line within a hundred paces of the works. “Steady, guide center, forward, double quick !”[6]

And here is one of those points of disputed history. From Oliver’s view:

When we started from there we went double quick to charge their battery, but as they did not like the look of cold steel they left in a hurry. The color guard immediately ran up to the battery and planted the colors which were the first upon the battery.[7]

At least three regiments including the 8th CVI would claim the title of “First to Plant the Flag” upon the Confederate works. The 11th CVI and the 4th Rhode Island would also declare that they were the first regiment to the top. Croffut and Morris reported it this way:

The Eighth contests the claim of the 4th Rhode- Island to having first entered the enemy’s works; and it is certain that the flag of the Eighth was first displayed therein.[8]

Of course, the 8th CVI had a significant advantage here as “Morris” was the Rev. John M. Morris who would become the regimental chaplain just over one month after the Battle of Newbern.

Writing after the battle, General Parke reported that all the regiments “were under fire, and the officers seemed proud of the men they were leading and the men showed they had full confidence in their officers.”  Two soldiers are killed in action and four are wounded.

The attack upon the defenses of Newbern (March 14th) was made at an early hour, and the Eighth assisted in the capture of about five hundred Confederate troops. This was the regiment’s first baptism of blood. Its killed were privates Phelps of Company B and Patterson of Company I, with four wounded. The personal bravery of Colonel Harland amid the whistling bullets at Newbern, together with his skill and cool-headedness as a tactician, and his evident desire to shield his men from harm whenever possible, gave them a confidence in him which was never afterward shaken.[9]

The 8th was first in the battle in which they fought bravely…Gen Burnside came along up side of our Regt an[d] order[ed] us to charge on them in which we did in double quick time in which they fired upon us killing 8; wound[ed] several. It was a bold attempt but we won the victory driving the rebels in every direction.[10]

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] OR, Parke and Harland March 22, 1862.

[2] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (16 March 1862)

[3] IBID

[4] IBID

[5] IBID

[6] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

[7] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (16 March 1862)

[8] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

[9] History of the Eighth Regiment C. V. Infantry, J.H.Vaill, Case, Lockwood, and Brainard Co, Hartford, 1889.

[10] Letters of Cyrus B. Harrington, Connecticut Historical Society, March 15, 1862.

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